Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Labour’s defeat in Copeland shows the party is losing its heartlands

So what went wrong for the Labour Party in Copeland last night? There’s no understating the scale of the defeat – the worst by-election performance by an opposition since 1878 by some measures. It lost a seat it has held since 1935 to the Conservatives because the local MP, Jamie Reed, quit politics for a job in the nuclear industry. It’s threatening to become a trend: last night another by-election replaced Tristram Hunt, who also quit as MP for Stoke Central to run the Victoria & Albert Museum. His party held the seat last night, seeing off a noisy but shambolic Ukip campaign but let’s not pretend there’s much for Labour to cheer.

Neither of the two resigning MPs directly attacked Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in their resignation letters, but both have been outspoken critics of the direction he was taking. Both wrote agonised essays about the future of Labour. In a pamphlet, which Hunt had organised, on Labour and Englishness, Reed described a ‘quiet crisis’ in towns and smaller cities across England in which the local institutions, from the high street to the newspaper to the town hall, were all disappearing, and with them regional identity. He diagnosed the Labour Party’s ‘tin ear’ to Englishness. He didn’t speak about the new axis between globalisation and nationalism, the theme of James Forsyth’s cover story this week. But if he had, he might have said that Labour was too far down the wrong side of this axis. That it needed more of what Maurice Glassman used to call “flag and family”. Both Reed’s Copeland seat and Hunt’s Stoke-on-Trent Central fit that description of a ‘quiet crisis’, though for very different reasons. And this should be all the more worrying for Labour.

Copeland, in Cumbria, has a clear identity as a town that powers the rest of the UK, with 10,000 of its jobs reliant on the nuclear industry at Sellafield and a proposed plant to replace it, Moorside, which could provide up to 20,000 new jobs.

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